Gyokko Ryu Origins and Koku

Gyokko Ryu

Any time one begins to search for the origins of a martial art that is as old as the Gyokko Ryu, in any country or culture, you will find yourself going deeper and deeper into myth and legends, rather than factual history. Unsurprisingly this is also definitely the case with our art, the Gyokko Ryu of Koshijutsu.

As you may already know, the term “Ryu” means “style” or “school”, and these Ryu were kept very secret. Oftentimes a Ryu may be known only to one or a few members of the same family or clan. Therefore, to these people the history of their “Ryu” was simply taken for granted and was believed as it was taught to them by their master. They did not doubt its validity. They only needed to survive and live to fight another day. To do this they needed faith in their art and Ryu, and as expected this was easier to accomplish when their Ryu had legendary or even divine origins.

The Gyokko Ryu scrolls written by Takamatsu Soke, or “Headmaster”, are the first written record of the history of this Ryu. For about 1,000 years it had been an oral tradition, a secret to be passed down from master to disciple; generation after generation. These “new” scrolls were written from memory, detailing everything that Takamatsu Soke was taught by his grandfather, the previous Soke of the Gyokko Ryu.

On a few occasions I have had the honor of inspecting and translating some of these scrolls when they were on display. In them we can see the mythical origins of this ancient style. The story begins with a few warrior-wizards named;

Yao Yuhu (Chinese pronunciation) or Yo Gyokko (Japanese pronunciation)
Ikai a.k.a. Zhang Wushen (In Chinese) or Cho Busho (In Japanese)
Gamon Doshi
Garyu Doshi
Hachiryu Nyudo

Tozawa Hakuunsai, the actual founder of the school.

Yo Gyokko is said to have been the founder of the art known as Shitojustu, while “Ikai” or Cho Busho is the one who brought the Gyokko Ryu to Japan from China. Looking at the Chinese characters used to write Ikai’s name, we can see that he was most likely a foreigner to Japan (the “I” meaning outsider or other” and the “kai” means to be distributed evenly). It is interesting to note that “Ikai” in Japanese can also phonetically mean “from overseas”. This, of course, was not his true name but a warrior name or even a religious name attributed to him. I am of the opinion that these men may have gone back and forth between China and Japan on more than one occasion, developing and spreading esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo) at the same time as building political allies. It is possible that they may have even had a small naval force. In this period of history, following the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907 AD) it was very common for Buddhism to spread throughout Asia with the support of a political/military arm.

When considering such names as Gamon Doshi, Garyu Doshi, and Hachiryu Nyudo we can see by the use of the characters “Doshi” and “Nyudo” in their names that they were devout Taoists and practitioners of “Onmyo-do” or the way of Yin and Yang. So it is safe to assume that our art was heavily influenced by these schools of thought; Buddhism and Taoism or Onmyo-do as it was known in ancient Japan.

Hichoijutsu, the original skill set of the Gyokko Ryu, is often misunderstood as the art of flying or jumping but it is actually a kind of empty-hand fighting art that incorporates a lot of jumping and leaping in its movements. In the Iga region of Japan it was known as “Hicho Karate Koppojutsu” and it was the central martial art for the famous Iga Ninja clans in the 1500’s. We call it the Koto Ryu. But this can be discussed at another time.

The Gyokko Ryu was also passed down into the Togakure clan of ninja in the Iga region by Momochi Sandayu, and possibly into many other clans in the area as the style, as noted in Kakutogi no Rekishi by Fujiwara Ryozo (1990), is very well known as being a “jitsuryoku ha” or a style with great effectiveness.

The lineage of past Soke and Menkyo Kaiden holders is as follows, please keep in mind this list is not to be thought of everyone that existed in the Ryu. These were the leaders and at times more than one may have led at the same time in various parts of their region. It is said that the Ryu was somewhat active even through the peaceful Edo period. Only to nearly completely die out in Toda Shinryuken Masamitsu’s lifetime due to drastic changes in Japan’s government resulting from foreign influences on the country. Thanks to the efforts of Takamatsu Soke and Hatsumi Soke the Gyokko Ryu is now enjoying its true “Golden Era”.

Yo Gyokko (The original founder of Chinese Shitojutsu)
Ikai (The man credited for bringing Shitojutsu to Japan circa 1056 AD)
Gamon Doshi
Garyu Doshi
Hachiryu Nyudo
Tozawa Hakuunsai (The master of Sarutobi Sasuke, circa 1159 AD)
Tozawa Shosuke Oho (circa 1162 AD)
Suzuki Saburo Shigeyoshi (circa 1180)
Suzuki Gobei Mitsusada
Suzuki Kojiro Mitsuhisa
Tozawa Soun (circa 1288 AD)
Tozawa Nyudo Genai
Yamon Hyoun
Kato Ryubaiun (circa 1394 AD)
Sakagami Goro Katsushige (circa 1532 AD)
Sakagami Taro Kunishige
Sakagami Kotaro Masahide
So Gyokkan Ritsushi
Toda Sakyo Ishinsai
Momochi Sandayu (circa 1555 AD)
Momochi Sandayu II (circa 1591 AD)
Momochi Tanba Yasumitsu (circa 1615 AD)
Momochi Taro Saemon (circa 1624 AD)
Toda Seiryu Nobutsuna (circa 1644 AD)
Toda Fudo Nobuchika (circa 1681 AD)
Toda Kangoro Nobuyasu (circa 1704 AD)
Toda Eisaburo Nobumasa (circa 1711 AD)
Toda Shinbei Masachika (circa 1736 AD)
Toda Shingoro Masayoshi (circa 1764 AD)
Toda Daigoro Chikahide (circa 1804 AD)
Toda Daisaburo Chikashige (circa 1804 AD)
Toda Shinryuken Masamitsu (born 1824, died 1909)
Takamatsu Toshitsugu (born 1887, died 1972)
Hatsumi Yoshiaki (Masaaki) (1931 – present)

Religious Background

As I mentioned earlier, the Gyokko Ryu was influenced heavily by Buddhism and Onmyo-Do, or ancient Taoism in Japan. This is extremely obvious in many ways. One is simply the language of the style. Words such as Koku, Kukan, Gogyo, Goshin, Sanshin, Tenchijin, etc. are often used throughout the style’s forms and teaching principles.

Here I would like to mainly discuss the term Koku as it is the first lesson discussed in the structured forms. This term’s meaning is very simple, yet extremely complex at the same time. It is Buddhist in origin and originally comes from India. Koku can be translated as space, empty space or even boundless sky, but its true meaning is much more mystical and deep in meaning.

The concept of koku is personified by the Buddhist deity “Kokuzo Bosatsu”, the deity of wisdom and memory. It is believed that ultimate wisdom, or enlightenment, is contained or hidden in the “womb of space” and through the guidance of this deity one can attain enlightenment by experiencing the wisdom contained in the empty space or ethereal void all around us. The name is often translated as “boundless space treasury” or “warehouse of the void” as his wisdom is said to be as limitless as the universe itself.

Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan is said to have chanted Kokuzo Bosatsu’s mantra throughout his youth and eventually he had a vision telling him to make a pilgrimage to China for further study in esoteric Sanskrit texts that were not understood in Japan at that time. He left Japan in 804 AD in a government expedition to China consisting of 4 large ships with many other monks (including the famous monk Saicho), scholars, warrior generals and ambassadors. During a great storm on the way to China, one ship turned back for Japan and another was lost at sea.

Upon finally arriving to China, Kukai excelled in his studies and later returned to Japan as the eighth patriarch of esoteric Buddhism or Mikkyo. He was considered a genius in many respects. In a very short amount of time he mastered esoteric Buddhism rituals and meditation, learned Sanskrit and its Siddham script which played an important role in the development of Shugendo or mountain asceticism. This script was also important to the spread of Buddhism from northern India through Tibet and Nepal and all along the Silk Road.

One of Kukai’s greatest gifts to Japan was his teachings on the concept of Koku. That wisdom and enlightenment was something that could be grasped by anyone from the empty space all around us, as long as they knew the secret esoteric rituals and meditations including many “mudra” or spiritual hand positions and “mantra” or chants. The most common mantra for Kokuzo is “On Basara Aratana Kan. Om Basara Aratana Un” which is chanted to gain wisdom, intelligence and to accomplish tasks, another is “Nobo Akyasha Gyrabaya, Om Arikya Mari Bori Sowaka” which translates as; I Wish to the whole universe, OM, and with total dedication pray that all human beings prosper and flourish.

The most important thing to understand regarding Koku is that the mind and space are one. It is our bodies and impure thoughts that separate the two. For any practitioner of the Gyokko Ryu, daily meditation on Koku is essential along with practicing the Kihon Happo of Buddhism, the noble eightfold path. Just like Soke has taught us to return to the Kihon Happo of the Gyokko Ryu when we feel lost in our training, the Buddha has given humanity the Kihon Happo of Buddhism.

The Noble Eightfold Path describes the way to the end of suffering and the path to enlightenment, as taught by Siddhartha Gautama. It is a basic path to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions. In the end this finally leads to understanding the “truth” about all things.


For more information on the Gyokko Ryu please keep an eye out for my new book coming out in early 2020,  The Hidden Lineage – The Fighting Art of the Imperial Tigers


Sean Askew –  導冬 Dōtō

Bujinkan Kokusai Renkoumyo


Share this post

Scroll to Top